FRESNO, Calif. — A California native who grew up picking vegetables with his migrant parents and then soared over the same fields as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station announced plans Tuesday to run for Congress in the state's newly formed 10th District.
Jose Hernandez told a crowd of about 75 people outside Modesto's City Hall that he was proof the American dream was still alive.
"I went from plowshares to the stars," Hernandez said with his wife beside him.
Hernandez, a self-described moderate Democrat, earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and a master's from UC Santa Barbara. The Central Valley native worked for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, learned to speak Russian, coordinated Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and applied 12 times to astronaut school before being accepted at age 41.
"I've worked hard and haven't taken any shortcuts, and I've got this country to thank for it," Hernandez, 49, told The Associated Press before his formal announcement Tuesday. "It has been possible in this country for people like me to live the American Dream, and that's what I want to make sure I preserve."
As the U.S. space program began transitioning into its post-shuttle form, Hernandez spent a year at NASA headquarters working with members of Congress on space policy issues out of the office of legislative and intergovernmental affairs. That's where the political bug bit him.
"I was able to walk the halls of Congress and get a good feel for how they work," Hernandez said. "I'm coming into this with my eyes wide open."
Hernandez, who has never held office, will face freshman lawmaker Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, if no other Democrat files. Voter registration in the district, which includes Stanislaus County and the southern San Joaquin County, gives Democrats an advantage of 42 percent versus 37 percent.
He is receiving help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and already has hired a campaign manager with experience getting political novices elected. A.J. Carrillo guided Jerry McNerney to an upset of the DCCC-backed candidate in the 11th District in 2006. McNerney went on to upset Republican Rep. Richard Pombo.
President Barack Obama himself encouraged Hernandez to run for the seat when the two met after the former astronaut received an award from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. First lady Michelle Obama offered to come to the district and help him campaign, Hernandez said.
He said he will campaign on ending the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan at the agreed upon times so that the $10 billion spent annually rebuilding those countries can be invested back home.
"Enough is enough. It's time we start building our own infrastructure. Instead of raising taxes we need to look at where we are spending money and how we can redirect it to help our country," he said.
Hernandez said it's unreasonable to think that 12 million illegal immigrant workers in the U.S. can be deported. He wants the nation to invest in science and said he would work to lure high tech jobs to Central California. Congress has too many lawyers, he adds, and could use an engineer like him who is trained to solve problems.
"I would call myself a moderate Democrat," he said. "I agree on being fiscally responsible, but at the same time I also agree we need many of the social programs that we have. It's a delicate balance, but it can work if we are smarter about how we allocate our resources."
Hernandez has resigned from his job at a Houston high tech firm and is moving his family to the San Joaquin Valley, where he visits often and still has family. He serves on the Board of Regents at the University of the Pacific in Stockton and runs his Reach For the Stars foundation, which helps low-income students attend college.
Hernandez was born in nearby French Camp and grew up speaking Spanish and picking vegetables alongside his parents, who taught him that by working hard in school he could have a different future. He dreamed of space, and his parents encouraged him to develop a plan to reach that goal. The family eventually settled in Stockton after living in Modesto and Tracy.
After college became a pilot and a certified scuba diver. Eventually NASA's Johnson Space Center offered him a job as a research engineer. Four years later he was selected for astronaut training.
He is looking in the Turlock-Modesto area for a house with his wife, Adela, and their five children who range in age from 8 to 17.
"I'm a son of the Valley," he said. "We are ready to come home."
Associated Press photographer Ben Margot in Modesto contributed to this report.